PARIS—Official results in the first round of French presidential elections on Sunday don't bode well for incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy. Socialist candidate François Hollande narrowly beat the president with 28.6 percent of the vote compared to Sarkozy's 27.1 percent.
Although polling had predicted Hollande to win, Sarkozy will have to work very hard to make up ground before the two-man faceoff for France's top job on May 6. The most recent polls shows Hollande favored to win the second round with nearly a 10-point lead over Sarkozy.
It is the first time an incumbent president has had to go to a second round in a bid for a second term.
The two major unknowns helped Hollande's cause in the first round. The first was voter turnout. Despite predictions that it would be low over Easter holidays, it was reasonably high at 70.6 percent, according to the electoral commission.
The other big unknown was who would emerge as the "third man," after Sarkozy and Hollande. Three candidates were all polling with similar results at around 15 percent: far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, center-right candidate François Bayrou, and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Third place is widely seen as the kingmaker, meaning wherever their voters go in the second round is likely to decide the winner.
France's "third man" in this case, was a woman, Marine Le Pen who was the biggest surprise of the night. She finished with about 18 percent of the vote, the best showing ever by the far right.
This is seen as a big loss for Sarkozy who had been able to absorb more of the right wing in 2007.
"The battle for France has only just begun. … Nothing will be as before," Marine Le Pen told her cheering supporters.
Le Pen said she will declare whom she supports on May 1.
Candidates on the left quickly lined up behind Hollande, including several prominent Greens and Melenchon who urged his supporters to come out on May 6 to defeat Sarkozy.
The next two weeks should be explosive in French politics with the Sarkozy, struggling to regain personal popularity, in the toughest bind of his career. He must somehow invoke his charisma to simultaneously keep the center, while convincing the far right he can be tough enough on immigration and save the economy.
Negotiating space on the eurozone question might prove most challenging. While Le Pen voters support her call to leave the eurozone entirely, Hollande has pledged to renegotiate the European budget discipline deal carefully penned by Sarkzoy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both positions would be untenable for Sarkozy.